Director Mel Gibson, in the wilderness recently following off screen “incidents”, is back on safer territory behind the camera.
Opening with a montage of very graphic war images before returning the audience to a more bucolic setting in America, where the young Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) play fights with his brother.
Undercurrents of his WW1 veteran fathers “Tom” (Hugo Weaving) rage begin to seep through. Alcoholism and consequent violence towards his own family, hides his fathers own self hatred, outliving his war buddies.
Desmond (Andrew Garfield) meets a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) and the two become sweethearts, setting up more emotional payoff and reason to return home. Palmer fits the role required but by necessity disappears from our screens quickly.
Forged in this atmosphere is Desmond’s belief in god (Seventh Day Adventist) and refusal to take up arms, despite his desire to serve his country. As a conscientious objector (CO) he represents an unknown quantity to his army unit and trainers.
The army likes people and things to fit in, anything not regulation is thrown away or ridiculed and bullied. Both squad sergeant Vince Vaughn and company commander Sam Worthington do their utmost to allow natural selection within the unit to take it’s course.
However, Doss is made of sterner stuff and hangs around. His mettle is not truly tested until the unit are forced into action at Okinawa. Quite literally hell on earth as the US battled it’s way across the Pacific, against a fanatical Japanese army.
To just over the half way point this is a well acted and enjoyable romance/drama. At about 70 minutes the film goes up several gears. If you thought “Saving Private Ryan” was graphic and realistic, this shows how effects, techniques and stunts have moved on. You would not want this to feel any more real, arguably more than is strictly “necessary”.
However, if graphic images convinces those without first hand experience of the pointlessness of war, results of explosions and heavy calibre weapons on human bodies. Then by stinting on the blood and gore maybe a disservice. People don’t just get shot, fall down and die, like they do in most action movies.
What is not expected is the superb performance from Garfield, almost in every scene. Once the bullets fly he turns in a totally raw and believable Oscar worthy characterization. The acting where he seeks guidance as to what’s needed of him, is truly impressive. Dodd returns to save 75 men, winching many down a sheer cliff face single-handed.
You cannot just make this stuff up, because it is based on a true story. The first man to to win the highest military award (Medal Of Honor) without firing a shot. Stay for the closing real life interview clips which are most affecting.
Despite not subscribing to Gibson’s occasional “worldview” he still knows how to direct a film, occasional messiah like images and stereotypical enemies notwithstanding.
A film of two halves, if you don’t like war movies up to 70 minutes provides an impressive drama/romance.
Stay around for the second half and you will experience an immersive, graphic war action film anchored by a fine central performance from Garfield, helped by solid support from Weaving, Worthington and Vaughan.
Highly recommended but be warned.